Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Misunderstanding Media: the medium is not the message*

In his famous essay "The Medium Is The Message" (1964) media guru, Marshall McLuhan uses the analogy of electric light to illustrate his view of the relation between a medium and what he sees as its wider message. He writes: "The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message."

McLuhan makes no attempt to clarify what he sees as the difference — if any —between this notion of "pure information" and say, pure form, pure matter or pure energy. Nor does he provide any guidance regarding the question of what quantity or kind of information might be left over once a message has been stripped of its content. If electric light is all information and no message then, according to McLuhan's logic, it is possible to rid a medium of its message whilst retaining pure information. If information exists independently of content then it follows that information must inhere or adhere to its medium in some form — presumably a detectable form. But if this information is detectable then what extra ingredients does electric light possess beyond its raw properties?

Further questions are begged. Does only electric light qualify as pure information or might gaslight also make the grade? And what of candlelight or sunlight? What is information after all? Are flowers informed by the light that falls upon them? Does the light of Springtime inform trees that it is now the moment to blossom?

If light transmits information and this information informs things, then what is the difference between information thus regarded and messages conventionally regarded? And what are we actually left with once we remove all messages from information? What information could there possibly be in an uncrackable code? Is it not the case that an unreadable message is devoid of content precisely by being devoid of information? What information is to be had from a language that cannot be understood?

Or are we to say that an unintelligible message is pure information to the extent that we recognise it as a message; as a communicative tool? That seems fair, but it still fails to explain how ordinary electric light constitutes pure information.

A further puzzle emerges. If electric light is pure information, then it follows that the electric light in a fibre optic cable is pure information also, even when it carries no encoded information. Likewise, when information is encoded and sent along a fibre optic cable it must be encoded information further comprised of pure information: an informational wheel within a wheel.

Something has evidently gone badly awry in McLuhan's thinking. Electric light is no more "pure information" than gaslight, candlelight, paint in a jar, or a stick. Almost anything can be used as a medium so long as we can control it sufficiently to produce representations of one kind or another. A medium without representation is a material without a function. In other words it is just a potentially manipulable resource. 

Media are not things that we attach messages to like clothes on a washing line. Strictly speaking, a medium doesn't actually exist as a medium unless it is used to represent something. Media are techniques in the use of objects and materials for the purposes of communication. There is nothing intrinsic to objects and materials that confers anything other upon them than the properties they already possess. Information is not an inherent property of matter    it is a culturally negotiated attribution. To interpret something as information is to be an informed member of a culture and to be an informed member of a culture is to be possessed of skills in the use of materials and resources for the purposes of communication.

A resource is no more a medium than a stick is intrinsically a tool.

* For Tom


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